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Werner Büttner, ‘Die verirrten Aromasucher’, 1996, collage

‘Nor is it good to be all too wise…’

The German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) was an ardent admirer of Ancient Greece. He wanted to regenerate Germany and turn Berlin into an Athens on the Spree anticipating Joyce’s Buck Mulligan and his desire to Hellenise Dublin. Hölderlin’s education was largely theological. As a somewhat intransigent individual with, as Michael Hamburger (his respected English translator) quoting Milton puts it, ‘a conscience that would retch’, he became a writer rather than a minister. Hölderlin’s work and ideas are the inspiration behind this large group show of contemporary German art initiated by André Butzer and in two venues. The works are a mix from the early 1980s and of more recent manufacture. As to the creed of a show featuring the likes of established figures such as Albert Oehlen to rising stars such as Thomas Zipp, one might point to a line from To the Germans —‘Poor in deeds though we’ve thoughts enough!’

Hölderlin’s writing, particularly that of his only novel Hyperion, has an interesting structure in that it features patterns of cyclical and spiralling progression alluded to here by Günther Förg’s untitled cibachrome prints, 2006, of stairwells heading ever upwards to some distant goal. Hamburger talks of Hölderlin’s clash in his desire to become at one with the cosmos and his own sense of isolation. The poet felt that cosmic mysteries must remain unspoken, unrevealed. Björn Dahlem’s work Die Theorem des Himmels III, 2007 suggests, as with the recent success of the best selling Cosmos book of photographs, that Hölderlin’s view is a minority one in this age of space shuttles and the Hubble telescope. Dahlem’s large wood and lamp construction ‘Schwarzes Loch (M- Sphären)’, 2007, though, chimes with Hölderlin’s own description of his structural form of writing as the ‘eccentric orbit’.

The poet’s depressions were profound, making Larkin resemble an ecstatic Whitman—‘we are born for Nothing, believe in a Nothing, work ourselves to the bone for Nothing, until we gradually dissolve into Nothing’. Or again—‘there is an oblivion of all existence, in which it seems that we have lost all things, a night of the soul in which not the faintest gleam of a star, not even the phosphorescence of rotten wood, can reach us’. Which is just about what we get with Thomas Struth’s monochrome photographs here like ‘Werthauser Strasse, Duisburg’, 1985; a non-peopled post neutron bomb nothing world.

Hölderlin planned a quixotic ‘humanistic magazine’ he called Iduna, which would champion the ‘unification and reconciliation of the sciences with life, of art and good taste with genius, of the heart with the head, of the real with the ideal’ utopian ends Butzer shares in these shows. The failure of Iduna, the inability to attract Goethe and Schiller as kommandos, if you like, was, according to Hamburger, tantamount to nothing less than Hölderlin’s rejection from society. He felt isolated from the culture of his time which he described as childlike, a sentiment many of today’s artists on display here share, one suspects, as with the lines:

The crowd likes best what sells in the market place,
And loud mouthed force alone wins a slave’s respect

Hölderlin’s tragic failure in love also left him with an incapacity to feel, and one can well imagine him as depicted by Butzer in the title canvas of the show Kommando Friedrich Hölderlin, 2006 as a ghost-like screaming figure, an advance in despairing creepiness from Munch. The poet wrote in a fragmentary style for much of the later part of his life and this piecemeal delivery is reflected in the two shows.

It could be said that the huge old industrial OsramHöfe venue is the heart of this show, with the larger works and the more dapper Zimmerstrasse with its quieter works on paper as the head, but their simultaneous appearance demands respect rather than castigation.

John Quin reports on Berlin